On Saturday, Aug. 3, I was finishing a Waco Tribune-Herald editorial about the promise of impact fees to partially offset the burden placed on city of Waco ratepayers and taxpayers in funding the streets, water and sewer lines required to serve new developments amid vibrant population growth and concerns over urban sprawl. But this being Donald Trump’s America, any focus on such common, workaday matters proved wildly insignificant when news of more mass shootings erupted, one in El Paso, another in Dayton, Ohio.
This much history will record: A 21-year-old white supremacist armed with an AK-47 variant mounted a massacre at a Walmart in the border town of El Paso to battle what he allegedly labeled a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” History will note he did so amid a flourishing environment of hate radio, social-media rants and the president’s reckless tweets and race-baiting commentary. The killer’s apparent online “manifesto” blames Hispanic immigrants for undercutting Americans’ job prospects and mixing up ethnicities and cultures. He particularly resents young Hispanics: “Even though new migrants do the dirty work, their kids typically don’t. They want to live the American Dream which is why they get college degrees and fill higher-paying skilled positions.” He also blames our nation’s problems on a “takeover of the United States government by unchecked corporations,” expresses repulsion at destruction of the environment “from farming and oil-drilling operations” and condemns the urban sprawl that “creates inefficient cities which unnecessarily destroys millions of acres of land.” But these other issues pale alongside his racism and chilling digression into what weaponry will prove best in “this attack.” Peaceful resolution is impossible. He declares his actions “the beginning of the fight for America and Europe.”
And what of the mass shooting in Dayton hours later, involving a 24-year-old from the other end of the political spectrum? Investigators are exploring the fact that, in this brief shooting spree that left nine dead and 27 wounded, the shooter’s sister was among the dead. Whatever his motive, the killer went into this madness (and ultimately to his grave) prepared to claim as many of the innocent as possible, equipped with a .223-caliber “assault-style” rifle, body armor and extra magazines. Police say his weapon was modified to fire in quick succession. Former classmates report he was “obsessed with guns and he frequently harassed female students.” Political tenets revealed seem threadbare, typical of this era of Facebook and Twitter and suggesting the very definition of nihilism — every bit as malignant to a functioning republic and its citizenry as the rant-filled anarchy of the far right.
In a society numb to reports of mass shootings, Providence has now given us multiple mass shootings in shorter time periods, possibly to determine if this at long last will shame our leaders into confronting and condemning racist rants, weeding out what Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush (almost alone among Texas Republicans) condemns as “white terrorism” and embracing common-sense gun restrictions such as muscular, court-ordered “red-flag laws” which prohibit gun purchases or possession of guns by people who voice clear and present threats to others.
Given all the inflammatory rhetoric about illegal immigrants in Texas and the subservience of lawmakers to the National Rifle Association, no Texan should be surprised at the El Paso slaughter with a death count of 22. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a talk-radio veteran obedient to the deep-pocketed gun lobby, has blamed abortion, video games and the supposed exclusion of prayer from schools for this and other shooting massacres — with little evidence to back any of it. Two years after successfully pressing sanctuary-city legislation making it easier for police to racially profile everyday Hispanics about their immigration status during traffic stops, Patrick snuffed a budding push for “red-flag laws” after two other shooting massacres in Texas, one at a church, the other at a public school. The NRA this past June proclaimed the 2019 state legislative session, including passage of nine pro-gun laws, “one of the most successful sessions we’ve had.”
Considering Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s folding like the proverbial cheap suit after briefly raising the possibility of red-flag laws following the Santa Fe High School massacre (10 dead, eight of them students), I’m astounded he had the gall to show up in El Paso and thank first responders. The governor largely ignores the best advice on gun regulations, which might safeguard law enforcement as well as constituents. Last week he formed a task force to “combat domestic terrorism and root out the extremist ideologies that fuel hatred and violence in our state.” He might start at the Statehouse. Given the membership of Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, expectations of this task force are low. Alice Tripp, legislative director of the Texas State Rifle Association, stressed she and her NRA affiliate will not tolerate red-flag laws or universal background checks: “If you truly have ‘common sense’ and you research the basis and background for each historic [shooting] event, you will find laws were broken, warning signs were ignored and evil won the day.”
Tripp is partially right. The problem goes beyond guns. Racism, fanatical worship of guns by frustrated whites and unceasing anxiety over “invasions” — part of a disturbing 2017 study by Baylor University sociology professors F. Carson Mencken and Paul Froese that echoes sociologist Michael Kimmel’s 2013 study, “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era” — increasingly culminate in our nation’s endless immigration battles. This is especially so here in Texas where generations such as mine grew up on Anglo deification of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, John Wayne and William Barret Travis, armed with muskets and Bowie knives, battling to the death Mexican hordes at the Alamo. I didn’t become aware of the rest till later — that Americans in the 1820s settled in what was then Mexico where some immediately violated Mexican anti-slavery laws. When Mexico in frustration closed its borders to Americans, yet more Americans simply violated Mexico’s sovereignty. This history is not erased so much as ignored. It’s another case of reality clashing with political narratives masquerading as history and seeking to deceive and manipulate the gullible and the paranoid.
The El Paso shooter’s purposed manifesto dovetails neatly into these narratives: “Our European comrades don’t have the gun rights needed to repel the millions of invaders that plague their country. They have no choice but to sit by and watch their countries burn. America can only be destroyed from the inside-out. If our country falls, it will be the fault of traitors. This is why I see my actions as faultless. Because this isn’t an act of imperialism but an act of preservation. America is full of hypocrites who will blast my actions as the sole result of racism and hatred of other countries, despite the extensive evidence of all the problems these invaders cause and will cause.” Such comments contribute to Kimmel’s conclusions that many gun-worshipers “form the backbone of the tea party, of the listeners of outrage radio, of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists.”
I warmly welcomed President Trump’s Aug. 5 condemnation of white supremacy and bigotry, then again lost faith in his words, judgment and humility as he abruptly shifted blame for the killings to the news media, immigrants and the victims themselves without acknowledging his own role in this complicated scenario. Apologists insist it’s absurd to believe incendiary rhetoric by the president can influence shooters, though physicians, nurses and medical staffers in El Paso obviously disagreed. They petitioned University Medical Center higher-ups to block patient visits by the president, given his racially charged tweets and campaign rally talk about immigrants. White House photos of the presidential visit with the wounded in Dayton surfaced on Trump’s re-election website within hours. In greeting hospital staff in El Paso, Trump pivoted to talking about his crowd size during an El Paso campaign rally in February — and how former Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke’s rival rally failed to surpass Trump’s in size. What a comfort in a time of grief and confusion. Suffering patients able to do so declined the president’s bedside manner.
Vacationing in a mountaintop New Mexico town two hours north of El Paso after the shooting, I had more occasion than usual to contemplate the uproar through news media such as the stalwart El Paso Times and online Border Report, fast eclipsing others in border coverage. There was the anti-Trump protest in El Paso’s Washington Park the day of the president’s visit. To quote protester Cleoria Anderson: “I never thought I would see in my lifetime a president that says the things he does about human beings.” There was this scrawled among makeshift memorials left to honor the dead: “Dear Mr. President, promise to really listen to the victims and families you’ll meet today. Be a man and take any of their criticism. Evil (inspired by words you’ve used) came here to destroy our beautiful, loving and strong sister cities [El Paso and Juarez]. He failed.” Trump supporters meanwhile rallied to welcome the president, including 42-year-old retired Air Force tech sergeant Gabriel Avila, waving a U.S. flag and a Trump 2020 flag: “You want to see hate? Watch how many (passing motorists) flip me off.”
We were warned
I’ve tried to rationalize trash-talking, no-holds-barred Trump rallies as the political perversion of midnight screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the 1970s, complete with participatory recitations by the audience such as “Lock her up!” At a May 8 Florida rally, the reality TV show star who characterized Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug peddlers in June 2015 riled up his crowd with more such talk, prompting someone in the crowd to yell, “Shoot them,” which left Trump smiling in amusement. I’m sure many people at these rallies would insist in polite company that they’re not serious. That is, not serious about shooting anybody, even illegal immigrants. Yet what in another setting might qualify as lynch talk, and with no less than the elected leader of the free world joining in, sooner or later will trigger hateful deeds. And thus the inconvenient question of societal and political complicity arises.
In his supposed manifesto, the El Paso shooter (who yet survives) insists his opinions on immigration and other topics predate Trump and his campaign for president: “I [am] putting this here because some people will blame the president or certain presidential candidates for the attack. This is not the case. I know that the media will probably call me a white supremacist anyway and blame Trump’s rhetoric. The media is infamous for fake news. Their reaction to this attack will likely just confirm that.” This echoes a point made by Trump defenders — that such rhetoric and violence predate Trump’s ascension to power. That’s true but only if you mistakenly conclude the Age of Trump commenced with his Jan. 20, 2017, inauguration. Shortly after the 2009 inauguration of the nation’s first black president, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a report predicting that the economic devastation that began at the end of the George W. Bush administration; the increasing popularity of social-media platforms; and the election of a black president would collectively invigorate racially driven extremism, enough to threaten even national security. The April 7, 2009, intelligence report was shelved when right-wing congressmen expressed indignation.
Considering all that followed, the report was on-target: Some of what I perceived as racism blossomed out of the national tea-party movement arising mere weeks after Barack Obama’s inauguration. I remember some self-styled rebel — clearly out of step with the political movement’s supposed mission of tax reform and fiscal austerity — flying an oversized Confederate battle flag at one of the first local tea party demonstrations in spring 2009. By 2011, Trump was on the national scene whipping up further frenzy through his bizarre but effective crusade suggesting Obama was foreign-born (despite evidence to the contrary) and thus an illegitimate president. The Trib, then owned by arguably one of the most conservative businessmen and philanthropists in all Central Texas and thus no ally of Obama, nonetheless dismissed all this as nonsense. We suggested in an editorial that errant Republicans not fall prey to conspiracy theories just to oppose Obama: “We can think of plenty of reasons (and have) for opposing the latter without resorting to silly and irrelevant scenarios about his being born in Kenya or Mars or anywhere else besides Hawaii.”
But the toxic elements had been unleashed. The Age of Trump was underway, as one letter to the editor, written tongue in cheek, demonstrated: “Many fine Americans such as Donald Trump, Rush Limbaugh and Texas’ own Tom DeLay — as well as 51 percent of likely Republican primary voters (in a February poll) — have confidently proclaimed the president was born in Kenya (or Indonesia?) and that a vast conspiracy cunningly arranged to put his birth notices in Honolulu newspapers nearly 50 years ago. Your editorial suggests these people are fools or charlatans. Next you’ll tell your readers he isn’t a secret Muslim (or a radical black Christian follower of Jeremiah Wright — it’s sometimes hard to keep these theories straight). But dark, dark forces are clearly at work. ”
What’s really exceptional
Trump apologists are right that the president is not the only one who talks of border invasions. Indeed, the Aug. 12 New York Times notes the stunning overlap in terminology employed in the El Paso killer’s purported manifesto and years of rhetoric aired on Fox News, in political speeches and on talk radio. Yet the president broadcasts on the biggest bullhorn of all. And if presidents can rally a nation through oratory — “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” — and if presidents can lift spirits amid despair and chaos as President George W. Bush did amid the rubble of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, if presidents can prove comforters-in-chief as we saw when President Obama championed fallen first responders of the nearby West explosion in 2013 (by paying tribute to the small-town values of America’s rural stretches), then it’s ridiculous to claim a president can’t also stir venomous impulses. One could also argue the El Paso massacre bears out Trump’s claim he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing supporters or suffering consequences.
Texas Monthly senior editor and former Waco Tribune-Herald editor Carlos Sanchez, an El Paso native, champions his hometown not only as today’s Ellis Island but a borderland anomaly where Anglos and Hispanics have long co-existed in peace and prosperity — the sort that may one day typify much of America. “El Pasoans have grown accustomed to hearing misinformation about the dangers of migrants, a xenophobic message that always seems to come from distant places — TV networks in New York and politicians in Washington, D.C., or Austin,” he wrote in an Aug. 6 Texas Monthly essay. “No one is more responsible for spreading fear of migrants than President Trump. In his State of the Union speech, he claimed that El Paso was once ‘considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities’ until a border wall was built. In fact, El Paso has been a safe city, long before modest fencing was erected after the original border fence act was enacted by the George W. Bush administration in 2006.”
One final thing about propagating hate: It not only leads to more hate, it not only spurs violence from unstable minds in all camps (for instance, the deranged 66-year-old shooter who targeted Republican lawmakers during a 2017 Congressional Baseball Game for Charity practice session), it also threatens to breed hate enduring the generations — not a happy prospect for those truly inclined to ensure survival of the white race amid demographic shifts in Texas and the United States. There will be consequences beyond today’s hatred and violence, whether they one day involve individuals such as the innocent, 2-month-old boy that President Trump and the first lady happily posed with (thumbs up) in El Paso — the parents, Andre and Jordan Anchondo, reportedly Trump supporters, died shielding the infant from an attacker who deemed them all the very invaders Trump repeatedly talked about — or nameless, dust-covered, asylum-seeking immigrant children incarcerated in inhumane, even abusive conditions in federally run detention facilities on the Texas-Mexico border. Some of these children were separated from parents after fleeing violence and oppression in Central America.
For those of us sorting through the mundane challenges of more and more people settling in Texas and pursuing the American Dream, whether from New Jersey, Mexico, California (yes, some locals view Californians as invaders) or Honduras, whether they wind up working on our roads or in high-tech industries or roofing our homes or designing housing subdivisions in which others of us will live, whether their arrivals warrant more landfills, more schools and more social services, the rhetoric of Trump and his followers distracts from the promise of America under its better angels. Most amazingly, it denies the exceptionalism so many politicians, left and right, like to claim about America, rooted not only in our acceptance of people from other lands and other cultures but their descendants’ remarkable assimilation, often within a generation, into a bustling, forward-minded, opportunity-ridden, melting-pot republic that should amount to far more than what we now witness.